Driving Lessons

Long before driving schools existed it was necessary to beg a family member to act as instructor. Mom, a traditional housewife, didn’t drive. That left me only one choice and it was a triple whammy of complications.

First, just learning to drive. Second, I was learning to drive on a stick shift. And third, I was learning to drive from my dad – a policeman. I recall during my childhood that Dad was this phantom who was often absent but always intimidating. When present he was this tall man in a blue uniform and a funny, wide-brimmed hat. Then there was the badge and the gun, holstered at his side.

During grade school, my sisters and I would come home for lunch to hear Mom’s admonitions to be quiet. Dad was sleeping due to a night-shift. But when he was around, lunch involved Dad’s orders to be completely quiet.

He loved Paul Harvey whose radio program aired each day at noon. The only sounds allowed were Dad’s chuckles or ah-hah’s in agreement with Paul Harvey’s analysis of some world event. I went through my childhood obeying without question and just staying out of the way of this mysterious interloper.  Until it was time to learn to drive.

After long, arduous kitchen table discussions and much spirited advice, we set out. Dad was a stern teacher, not known for calmness. I recollect our practice driving on city streets.  Perhaps large shopping center parking lots didn’t even exist back then.

I recall the first time we approached an intersection and I noticed the red light had changed to green.  I commented that that meant I didn’t have to brake though there were two cars ahead of us. I thought Dad would go through the windshield.

He smoked a pipe and always propped it, unlit but ready to go, in the open ashtray on the dashboard. I always knew when I wasn’t doing well. The pipe was lit. Couple that with his jerky motions and clearing his throat. The longer the session, the worse I felt.

Mom, in our much later reminiscences, laughed at how she knew right away how things had gone when we returned from a driving session. She’d peek out the window as we both walked toward the house; most often, I looked defiant and Dad looked angry. She knew not to ask how things had gone. By the way, I got my license on the first try.

Our father/daughter love/hate relationship was quite usual but with a little twist. I commented, as an adult, that I went through high school with a cop car in my driveway. And it did wonders for my social life. Guys often asked if they could pick me up on the corner. No way! I learned the hard way to toe the line at home. But it didn’t impair the adolescent sneakiness of my social life.

Just once, my friend Ruth Ann and I got the bright idea to skip school. We thought we were so smart, calling in for each other. Then we hit the road in Ruth Ann’s boyfriend’s car. We had a great time.

When I got home Mom coyly asked how my day had gone; then informed me I was busted. In fact, I’d been busted in the first half hour. As Ruth Ann and I blithely “cruised the gut,” I was spotted by a city cop. Who then called my Dad.  Who then called Mom.  She, of course, called the school. So, that was the end of my career on the lam. And it further curtailed my already limited use of the family car.

When as a senior in high school and just turned eighteen, some younger friends asked me to buy beer for them. In the desperate need to be liked, I said okay and went to a small grocery store and smugly showed my newly minted driver’s license.

Somehow Dad got wind of it (as he always did); all he said was what I was doing wasn’t wise and if I got caught I shouldn’t except any help from him. Needless to say, that put an end to my career as an underground supplier.

Life with a dad who’s a cop was hard. I got away with nothing. But I look back and appreciate a few lessons. I always signal my turns, keep a safe distance when following another car, don’t break any laws drinking or otherwise.

As soon as I graduated, I escaped the prison of my childhood.  Visits home from college were punctuated by Dad’s hunched shoulders and judging silence as I regaled him and Mom with my latest adventures. My only regret was once, to get his goat, I called policemen “pigs.” But then, that was the 60’s, don’t you know.

 

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Broken Branches

When I was a child, one of my aunts kept a family tree. Nothing fancy. Just a type-written list that was mimeographed and passed out at each family reunion. Over time it became the final word when questions or disagreements arose about our family’s past.

How could I know that, as an adult, I’d have to make sense of the secrets it held and accept how mangled it really was. My mother was the oldest of six kids from a very large and close family and I was the first grandchild, oldest of over thirty cousins.     As a college student, I wanted to clear up a question in the family tree,

I couldn’t find one particular cousin. I was sure my mother’s sister had had a child but only my aunts name appeared on the document. I asked Mom and she, rather hesitantly, said it as true. As we were talking, I flashed back to an incident when I was about nine years old. Now it all made sense.

I have clear memories of times my aunts and grandmother would come over for one of their card parties. These times were as much fun for me as for them because I loved all the chatter and laughing. I’d sit quietly in the corner trying to understand the latest gossip.

But on that day, Aunt Marge was absent and their whispered conversations were out of the ordinary. They seemed to be purposely keeping something from me and to be judging Aunt Marge.

She was one of my favorite aunts and nothing she did could ever seem wrong to me. My questions were shushed but after everyone left I asked Mom what was going on. She fumbled around uncomfortably before finally speaking.

“Well, I guess you’re old enough to know. Your Aunt Marge is going to have a baby. And she isn’t married.” Then she got very busy folding clothes, clearly wanting me to let it go. But I couldn’t.

“But how can she help that?” I questioned, with the innocence of a fourth grader before sex education.

“She can’t help it if God gave her a baby,” I reasoned. “Father Elverman says babies are a gift from God. So how can she help it if God decided she should have a baby and she isn’t married?”  Mom gave me no straight answers and then told me to “just never mind.” But I couldn’t be stopped.

“When I go to school tomorrow, I’m going to ask Father Elverman,” I declared.  “He told us that babies are gifts from God and I don’t see how that can be wrong! She couldn’t help it!” Mom was a bundle of nerves; she somehow got me to promise I wouldn’t go to Father Elverman. Perhaps this was one of my first lessons in the power of family secrets.

Aunt Marge did have her baby, a boy named Dennis. On a weekend trip to Grandma’s, I visited him sleeping in a crib in Aunt Marge’s bedroom. She even let me hold him once.

Then a short time later, Dennis died. It was called “crib death.” He just didn’t wake up one morning. At my next visit, Aunt Marge was crying and getting clothes ready for the undertaker. After that, nothing more was said about Dennis. It was almost like he’d never existed.

Back to me, as a college student, looking over the family tree, I had a question for Mom.    “Why isn’t Dennis in the family tree? He was a part of the family, after all.” She thought for a minute before she spoke.

“Well, I guess people just didn’t do it that way back then.”

“Oh. Because Aunt Marge wasn’t married?”

“That’s right.”

“What about Dennis’s father?”

“He was a man Marge had gone with on and off for some time. But at the time she got pregnant, he was married. “

“Why didn’t she give the baby up for adoption?”

“Oh, that wasn’t done back then,” Mom said. ” You know my Aunt Trixie’s daughter, Pat? She was born out of wedlock. Trixie just lived at home and kept the baby. If they could, people got married. If not, they just took the baby into the family.”  As we talked more, Mom got a mischievous look on her face.

“Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but all my sisters and my brother had to get married.” She reeked snugness.

“What?” I gasped. “You mean Aunt Rita? Aunt Betty? Aunt Jean? What about Uncle Bill?” At the mention of each name, Mom shook her head up and down with a sheepish grin. That turned into a puffed-up posture as she filled in more details.

“I remember when I was in high school and a girl in my class got pregnant. All I could think was I’d never let that happen to me. And I didn’t.”

”And you were the only one. How interesting,” I responded. “Funny how, back at that time, everyone was judging Aunt Marge but they weren’t so perfect themselves.”

“I guess so,” Mom continued. “It’s just one of those things that everybody knows but nobody talks about in polite company.”  Humph, polite company. Small actions still speak volumes.

It will always bother me that Dennis was left out of the family tree. For whatever reason. So, if the family tree had been done when Pat was born, she’d have been omitted too. Even more unfair.

Aunt Marge died some years ago. We stopped having family reunions so the pages aren’t updated and handed out anymore. I didn’t know it, but the family tree was about to be hit by a bolt of lightning.

Around the time of her 92nd birthday, as Mom was “putting her affairs in order,” she privately told me and each of my five siblings that she’d been born out of wedlock. She thought it wouldn’t be fair for us to see the truth on her birth certificate after she’d died.

The realization was sobering that there’s cousins, aunts and uncles out there who I know nothing about. I’d always felt so lucky that, with the help of the family tree, I knew who everyone was three generations back in my family. I guess that’s the end of that childish fantasy.

So, Grandpa wasn’t really my grandpa after all. Now I understand why my mother always, in a derisive tone, called him Claude. And if these old rules were followed, perhaps my mother might not have been included in the family tree, gnarled and unruly mess that it’s turning out to be.  I now wonder what other secrets are still out there.

German Potato Dumplings

Major pleading was necessary to get Mom to make my favorite childhood meal: German potato dumplings (knuedel), pork chops with gravy and green peas. To this day, when I think of this meal, my mouth waters. I also recall that it was an all-day affair, a time intensive assembly line production.

My busy mother with six kids and a husband to take care of had to be cajoled to put in the time needed to produce this meal. Of course, this automatically made me the mother’s helper, promising to do a few extra chores.

Grandma had made what she called knuedels and that’s where I first got hooked. Then I begged Mom to get the recipe. Preparation of the potatoes started early in the day: boiling, cooling, peeling the skins, mashing, kneading with flour, making snowball-like globes and ending with more boiling.

It was also most important to make too many. Leftovers became a great addition to another meal the next day. The leftover dumplings were sliced and fried in a pan; then a beaten egg was added at the end. Great with lots of butter. I recall me and my siblings rushing to get to the table before they were gone.

When I came home while in college, Mom always grinned as she asked what I’d like for supper, knowing what my answer would be. I don’t think I’ve had this meal since then. But the memory is clear.

In this electronic age, knuedels are all over the internet. They’re on Wikipedia and a half dozen You Tube videos depict the fine points of knuedal creation. Klas, a chef from Munich, has an interesting variation, using half raw potatoes; he adds even more time to the process since its necessary to squeeze the water out of the raw potatoes.

There are many names for this delicacy: knuedel, knodel, kloesse, kartoffelkloesse, schupfnudeln. Versions of recipes and names can be found in most countries in Europe and its noted this was an important staple that stretched the meal for poor and hard-working families.

Though my family wasn’t poor, I recall how Mom stretched our meals with casseroles and knuedels.  And I appreciate, now more than ever, how Mom made, just for me, this rather simple meal that made me feel special.

Tradition 2016

In our family, Thanksgiving is a time when each of my siblings do their own thing (and some say it’s really nice to spend the day with just their own family).  Christmas has turned out a little different. For the second year, Karleen has opened her home for a party honoring our parent’s Christmas Day tradition. And for that we are thankful.

Over the years, we’ve experimented with various stocking stuffers and name drawing methods of gift exchange; now we seem to have finally found the perfect thing. Each year we pick a color and the gift for anyone who wants to participate must be in that color and a minimum value of ten dollars. No food is the only stipulation.

My gift is always of the alcohol nature. And usually over the ten dollar limit. In years past I’ve brought Gold: Goldschlager schnapps;  Purple: Steel Reserve Beer; Yellow: Yellow Fly Wine, Blue: Skyy vodka. This year’s black was Jack Daniels.

After a year or two I realized that certain unnamed relatives were searching hard for the alcohol gift, so now I wrap it in a large bag. My niece, Kristin tried to steal my thunder this year gifting some liquor also. That’s okay, I’m willing to share my gig.

We draw numbers then take turns picking and opening gifts. Once opening is done and everyone has scoped out the gift they covet, the trading begins. And that can be pretty intense. And fun. Somehow, people so interested (nephew Craig) ended up with all the booze. I drew towels which I didn’t need and traded for socks which I did.  Jeung Bok got hand tools (just what a single gal needs for apartment repair). A win-win for all.

My threat that I wouldn’t make my deviled eggs next year if any were left-over backfired terribly; that tradition survives for another year. The good side of social media was apparent listening to Calvin, on a smart phone from Australia, screeching in joy at his grandfather (brother Kurt) making many funny faces and growling noises at him. It was great to see and talk to Jeung Hwa and wish her well in the upcoming birth of Calvin’s sibling in February. As I said, the good side of social media.

Most honored and first time guest this year was Mark’s girlfriend, Rebecca. She commented that her family was quite subdued. I don’t think we scared her away, showing her our true side. She seemed able to handle it all.

We pride ourselves on the simple Christmas Day menu and casual agenda. I heartily recommend the pizza, egg rolls, deviled eggs, cheesy potatoes and various snacks and sweets that adorned our table. We missed Kent and Tami’s fresh veggies and dip. Don’t get me wrong, we missed them too.

image1This year’s new tradition involved naughty socks. Though many wore nice holiday socks, they were upstaged by my “f**k this s**t” socks and niece Kristin’s  ”A-hole” socks. Kristin says he was channeling her Carrie Fisher. I have no excuse. All I know is there was lots of interest in knowing where to buy a pair. Next year should be a hoot!

Long after everyone had gone home, I played a game with Mark, Rebecca and their friends, a game that stretched my imagination and sense of decency. Cards Against Humanity describes itself as “a party game for horrible people who are as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.”  That’s what they say about themselves! And they are right.

Of the six players, mostly in their thirties, I won, taking 24 cards. I must be the most despicable. All I know is, I learned more sex and body fluid terms than I thought existed and most of them I don’t want to know. Not bad for an old broad. It was an energetic end to a very long day.

 

A great time was had by all. We recall how Dad would comment after every family get together, how great it was that we all got along. I think he’d be happy today.

 

A Rotary Phone

It would take forever to dial a number. The dial clicked, slowly clicked, clicked, clicked. One number after the other as it made its leisurely way back to stillness. After waiting forever to find the party line finally free, it took another eternity to place the call.

I was sitting at the kitchen table. The phone was a wall model ad I had to sit very close since the cord was so short. It was Saturday morning and I was calling to see if my best friend, Cathy, wanted to go shopping. We did that nearly every Saturday. We’d cruise through the few downtown clothing stores and then stop on the way home at McCarthy’s drug store for a cherry coke.

But this time, the week had been busy at school and we hadn’t firmed up anything. When she answered, her voice sounded strange. Kind of muffled. It took a while for her to answer my question. No, she said. Her brother, Bob had been in a car accident last night.

It didn’t really register at first. I thought maybe he was in the hospital or home in bed after the emergency room, sleeping the experience off. Or sleeping off his hangover. He was pretty wild and I knew from Cathy how her parents worried about him.

To me, he was so cute. He dressed flashy with his leather jacket and slicked back hair. A real cool dude, as we said in those days. I guess I had a crush on him though I knew he was out of my league and I’d never have admitted that to anyone. Especially Cathy.

Back to her response, I was confused. I didn’t get it. What did his accident have to do with whether or not we could go shopping? I might have even said something about how Bob was always up to something and how we never let his shenanigans get in our way. She had to actually say it. He’d died at the scene, she cried.

That was unreal to me. He always seemed so alive. Nothing could touch him. I’d just seen him the other day. I don’t remember what I said to Cathy; we just hung up. I think I just went on with my day as though nothing had happened. I don’t remember the funeral or talking to her parents or anything.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t get it. I don’t think I said the right things.  Or said much of anything. I don’t think I was sensitive or comforting. I could plead naiveté or immaturity but there is no excuse. I still feel bad.

 

What Corky Would Be Saying Now

(August, 2016) My dad, Corky, was opinionated. Outspoken. I always knew where he stood on any issue. Lately, I’ve been wondering what Corky’s take would be on the current presidential election. I’m not going to use the old cliché (rolling over in his grave) but I do sense some ominous rumbling coming from off in the distance.

Corky died in 2008, right before the presidential election and voted absentee. My sister told me how conflicted he was with the McCain/Palin ticket which was surprising coming from my hard-core republican Dad. She also told me he’d toyed with a vote for Obama but in the end stayed loyal and true.

I recall, when in college, how he and I had stimulating conversations about books I’d brought home from my classes. That was, until our beliefs differed. Still, I will always treasure our spirited talks of long ago which is probably why my most vivid recollections of my dad revolve around politics.

Politics is a classic example of how you can love someone and yet not like or agree with their attitudes or behavior. I couldn’t figure out how this working class man could become so conservative. Especially, when he’d benefited greatly from the social amenities of a democratic society. Dad was a policeman and I guess that’s the key. Coming home from a work day filled with unsavory people and events, I’m sure this led him down the path of right-wing thought.

Then talk radio further solidified his views. Each visit home was punctuated by his current adoration of one celebrity after another. This went from Rush Limbaugh to Don Imus and beyond. I vividly remember Dad’s detailed description of how G. Gordon Liddy, Watergate conspirator turned talk show host, burned his hand, holding it over a candle. Just to make a point. I never got the point but Dad sure seemed to.

Family gatherings grew more tense when Dad became unhinged by Bill Clinton. My siblings and I became desperate, we made a pact to take turns changing the subject whenever politics came up. Which it always did. It went something like this:

Corky: “Can you believe what that horse’s ass Slick Willy said to Congress about that trade agreement?”
My brother: “So, what do you hear from Clarence? Is he still working at Oshkosh Truck or has he retired?”  A few minutes of regular conversation would ensue. Then the next round began.

Corky: “Did you hear how Rush let those liberals have it about that affirmative action baloney they want to ram down our throats?”
Me: “I noticed how great the garden is. How many tomato plants did you put in this year, Dad?” These times resembled a ping pong game. Ping, ping, ping as we’d do our best to stay focused on the routine issues of daily life.

Dad spent hours each day reading several newspapers and cutting out articles and cartoons about Clinton politics. He was so proud of himself when he acquired old wallpaper sample books from a local home decorating store to store all of these super valuable materials.

Finally, a place to preserve every cartoon and editorial printed about Slick Willy.  Particularly silly or damming material was taped to the covers. I think he filled up six or seven of those books and proudly displayed them every chance he got.

Corky: “He has plans, diabolical plans. You wait, these things will be important. I’ve got to keep a record.”
Me: So, I see you have new neighbors next door. Have you met them yet?”
Corky: “No. The guy is a professor over at the University. Probably another one of those pinko liberals.” Poor Dad, living in pinko, liberal Madison with all the blue political lawn signs planted in yards up and down the block.

Which brings me to today. Both Mom and Dad are gone and their house has been completely rehabbed by one of those professors from the University. And I’ll bet there’s a blue lawn sign out front. Dad’s having conniptions about that, I’m sure. And about the current election.

My trumpian father would be right at home with the verbose behavior and coarse language. He’d revel in the caustic trumping of each candidate’s outrageous allegations about the other. He’d be right in there arguing over the trumped up accusations and insinuations.  He’d be in his glory.

But there’s something that would be really worrying him.  Something that could mean the end of life as we know it. That’s the possibility that Slick Willy would find his way back into the White House even through a side door. Or a back door. Where are those wall paper books when you need them!

 

Perseverance

Perseverance is almost universally considered a strength, something everyone should strive for.  But what about when it isn’t? What about when that tunnel vision of perseverance hits the brick wall of reality. My mother’s brick wall was her advanced age (96) and her quickly growing frailty. She was strong willed or, as Dad used to say, bullheaded and determined to stay in her home until the end. No discussion.

Her kids, myself and five others, watched in dismay as she courageously held out against the certainty of time.  It was puzzling why someone so determined was so lax in doing the small things that might have made a difference. Instead of changing the low battery on her hearing aids and keeping the medical alert buzzer on her body at all times, she was both careless and unconcerned.

Her constant talk of being lonely could not be assuaged by suggestions about assisted living. The value of better and regular meals, company and activities were brushed away with distain. I asked her, why would such a people-oriented person as yourself who has the money not take  advantage of these services? Mom’s angry reply was that she’d spent her whole life taking care of her children and now it was their turn to take care of her. This only intensified hard feelings and frustration on both sides.

I admired how each day she took her walker outside and traveled the entire block, greeting neighbors who came out to say hello. But then she was insulted when my sister told her of the worried phone calls she’d gotten from Mom’s unnamed neighbors down the street. That’s when denial set in. And more perseverance.

As winter approached, the fear of Mom being all alone in her big house escalated; we worried even more as unattended pots were left on the stove. Spoiled food was found in the refrigerator and mysterious piles of “very important” papers cluttered every flat surface. It became more common for Mom to be out of reach for hours when the phone was inadvertently left off the hook. Twice,  police arrived at her door when she’d pressed the wrong button.

My sister, her main caregiver, seemed to keep hoping that Mom would wake up one day and suddenly realize it was time. In the end, what finally made the difference was the written list of pro’s and con’s conspicuously placed on the dining room table. My brother and sister went over the list, point by point, each time they visited.

Now that everything is over (assisted living with very poor adjustment, her death a few months later) I can see that Mom used up all her perseverance trying to stay at home. When it came time for transition she had nothing left.

Sometimes the most valuable lessons are learned by observing the behavior of others and coming away saying I’ll never do that or I’ll never act that way.  And while I greatly admire Mom’s strength and her passion, I’ve developed a more refined plan to persevere in the later years of my life. I fully dedicate myself to what I’m able to do each and every day. But I also consider new circumstances and allow myself to change my mind.

 

The Pregnant Chair

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Many years ago, I had a dealer come over to appraise an antique desk I wanted to sell. She was ho hum about the desk in question but instantly interested in a chair she noticed off in the corner, a raggedy, frayed one that had been a part of my childhood and that’s still in my life today.

My mother had given it to me long ago during one of her times of uncluttering.  She insisted she didn’t want to burden her children with that job. At the time, I needed a chair for my small apartment and was glad to have even this tattered one to fill an empty space.

Mom had laughed that this chair was special to her since it was the only place where she could sit comfortably when she was pregnant. Mom had six children so it got plenty of use. She called it the pregnant chair. Now, my whole family calls it the pregnant chair and it’s taken on a personality all its own.

Dad had recovered the chair seat several times, lastly with some ugly blue material that had a plastic quality to it. I’m sure he’d thought that would make it last longer. Unfortunately, he was not an upholsterer so the chair always had a shabby, forlorn look and a perpetual sag. I’d inherited it with the ugly, blue material.

The dealer said the wood was unusual, either black walnut or mahogany. She wasn’t even sure which it was but said these hardwoods had been popular in the early 1900’s. Though durable and beautiful they fell out of favor due to cost and that the wood, though strong, was affected by humidity.

This chair had a beautiful carved back and arms and spindles that connected the legs. Carved completely of the hardwood rather than a veneer, she advised I should never have the wood refinished because that would reduce the chair’s value. Her comments made me look at it with renewed reverence and a new curiosity.

Next time, I asked Mom a few more questions hoping to hear a poignant or funny story about the acquisition of this unusual piece. She waved her hand carelessly saying they’d gotten it at a rummage or garage sale. She knew it had been cheap. She and  Dad didn’t have much money and had furnished their entire house that way. I was well acquainted with my parent’s frugal ways so this wasn’t a surprise.

I dragged that chair to each of my many homes from Upper Michigan, the Milwaukee area, northwoods Wisconsin and finally to Wauwatosa. I had it reupholstered three times because it has a very wide seat; all it needed was that one slightly overweight person to plop into it and it sagged once again. A really good upholsterer finally made it look great.

Once all fixed up, I’d get comments from guests about its beauty and enjoyed the laughs when I told its story. Wanting to complete the tale, I searched all my old photo albums looking for a picture. Not just of the chair but one of my mother actually sitting in the pregnant chair. Optimally, my pregnant mother sitting in the pregnant chair.

Since I was the first child I had a very thick photo album and thought I had the best chance of finding that treasured picture. No luck.  Remember, I was brought up long before the time of I-phones and our current practice of taking pictures of everything including our lunch. Then I asked all my relatives. My five siblings and Mom’s five siblings. Most didn’t even have a recollection of the chair. So again, no luck.

For a while, I even had this crazy idea of hauling it to Mom’s home to take a picture of her sitting in her chair. And now that she’s gone, I sincerely wish I had. Though I have no childhood recollection of Mom sitting in that chair, I vividly recall her bouts of morning sickness that endured throughout each pregnancy.

Much later she surprised and saddened me, admitting she had only wanted two children. Mom’s contrariness to the social mores of the times didn’t make much of an impression when I mentioned this to my youngest sister, fifth in the birth order.

Today, when I look across my living room, I behold Mom, sitting with a cup of coffee, familiar grin and all, snuggled up by the window sitting in the pregnant chair. Her knitting bag is at her feet. Both Mom and the chair were taken for granted, overlooked and sometimes dismissed over the years only to have their value finally appreciated. Better late than never, I’d say.

The arms look worn where the stain has faded. The legs are nicked and scratched. It makes no difference what the chair cost, how unique the materials or how it came to be part of my family. Al I know is that it’s a priceless heirloom to me.

Put It In Writing

The magazine article was written by a man who had been hospitalized and was awaiting surgery the next day. He told how his grown son came to the hospital and read a letter he’d written about how important his dad was to him. The son didn’t want to miss perhaps his last chance to tell his father how he felt. Reading the article made me realize I had some unfinished business with my own parents as well.

Being the oldest of six children, I’d had a rather tumultuous relationship with my parents, especially my father.  I felt I’d disappointed them several times by taking a path they didn’t approve of or understand.  Recent remarks made me also realize they still had lingering doubts about their parenting abilities and how they’d handled certain family crises over the years.

With the holidays drawing near it seemed the time was right. Dad and Mom were both in their late 80’s. Mom’s memory was slipping. Dad had had cancer recently and we almost lost him. He’s struggling with macular degeneration and no longer able to read or use the computer. Their time was drawing near and I didn’t want this opportunity to slip away.

First I found a card. Not a holiday card but just a simple card with a quote from Shakespeare: “I can no other answer make but thanks……and ever thanks:”

Then came the hard part, writing what I wanted to say. It’s amazing how we can dance around our feelings especially when raised in a home where feelings were ignored and minimized. Expressing love and hugging were never done in my childhood home. Only in recent years had we done that and still, very little. I was nervous about how this would be received. Just to be sure that I got my point across, I decided I wanted to read it out loud to them just as the son had done in the article.

It took several writings, rewritings, editing and re-editing to be able to deliver my message in the space the card would allow. This worked perfectly and I was happy with the results. Maybe this whole effort was more for me than for them, I speculated. I was already steeling myself for the response or worse, the absence of response it might receive.

We went down to see Mom and Dad on Christmas Eve and, due to other commitments, wouldn’t be able to stay for the big family get together the next day. This evening gave us some private time and they were glad to have the company.

We got there mid-afternoon and had a nice visit. Dad was his old self, trying to steer the conversation to politics every chance he got and we’d just head things in a different direction. It has been an unwritten rule amongst my siblings to simply change the subject since most of us didn’t adhere to his ultra conservative attitudes. We had a light supper and I’d planned to read my note to them sometime that evening.

I was nervous and found my mind running in circles as the meal progressed. Maybe this is a goofy idea I heard myself saying. I changed my mind several times and then realized there would be no better time. It’s now or never! This is how things have always been in my family and I wanted to do it differently! This was important to me no matter what their response would be.

We finished with supper and were just chatting when I said I had something I wanted to give them. I pulled out the card and read it.

Christmas 2005

Dear Mom and Dad,

Time passes so quickly….
And the opportunity to say things slips away…
We’ll do it later…another time, we think….
And then it never happens……
So, I’ve written this card….
To make sure everything I want to say is said
We only get one father and one mother…
Daily, I’m involved with parents
Who disappoint their children
By being weak, incompetent, even absent.
This has made me think…..
And recently I’ve heard myself saying
“I’m glad my parents were strict and had specific rules.
At least I knew what the expectations were.”
No, we haven’t always seen things the same….
Haven’t always agreed …..
But that never stopped you from supporting your kids.
And I look back now with gratitude……
I’m very lucky to have had the parents I have……

My mother is the hardest working person
I’ve ever known…
Case in point: the year I returned to school after
Christmas vacation, wearing a new Mom-made outfit.
Every day for two weeks.

My father is strong and true…
Case in point: the courageous way you’ve managed
Your health/medical adversities and accepted
This unexpected and unwanted circumstance.

Our family is fortunate……
All in all, we’ve had a good life……
Everyone is relatively healthy and happy…
Productive and resourceful…
That didn’t just happen…..
You deserve credit for that…..
I just want you to know
I love you and
Feel fortunate to be your
Number one daughter…..Karin

There was a hush when I finished. Mom smiled, seemed embarrassed and acknowledged it with a nod. My father said nothing and, as is his way, looked over my head and starred.  After a minute of awkward silence, we started to clear the table. I felt relieved. I had done something that was important to me regardless of what anyone else thought.

It would be an understatement to say I was disappointed. I’d opened myself up to them as never before, with no response, even though that was truly what I’d expected. Still there‘s that disenchantment when we’re faced with the reality of what we knew all along.

Later, I noticed my card that had been left on the table was no longer there. Mom put it away, I figured. Maybe they do value what I’ve given them. Maybe not. I’ll never know. All I know is that I’ll never look back years from now and say I wish I’d told them how I felt.

 

Trip to Bountiful Madison

(June 21, 2015) The conference started on Monday but I drove to Madison two days early since my brother, Kent, had promised me a boat ride. Turned out, he was leaving for a fishing trip on Sunday and the boat was already out of the water. Instead, I got a different kind of ride that meandered unexpectedly, jolting me from past memories to present realities.

Kent and Tami gave me a tour of parts of Madison I’d never seen. We first visited Williamson Street (known to locals as “the Willies”). A throw-back to the 1960’s and featured in local magazines as THE place to live, it was touted as a friendly, walking neighborhood where people actually greeted each other as they passed on the street. Filled with unusual, even quirky shops we’d turned down a side street looking for a parking spot. Lined with small, older homes filled with personality, we’d realized too late it was a “bikes only street.” Feeling guilty, driving very slow.

We had dinner at an eclectic night spot, an old tavern and grill with a new age kind of name that started with an A. I had the most unusual grilled cheese sandwich ever, filled with a kitchen sink of vegetables and sundry foodstuffs. Some I couldn’t even identify.

Then, on to an impromptu stop at the Crystal Corner Bar for a drink (three, as it turned out). It was an out of body experience as I was transported back to my old college days at the B & B Tap in Oshkosh. Tami returned from the ladies room to report there was a chalk board on the door of one of the stalls. It was decorated with drawings of penises.

We asked the bar mistress where the chalk was so we could add something; she said the chalk always seemed to disappear. No further explanation. Just a shrug. Caught up in the mood, I almost bought a Crystal Corner Bar t-shirt. Almost.

On Sunday, my sister Karla and I visited Mom’s old house to see how the new owners were getting on with their renovations. Karla said: “Mom would hate this!” I’m just surprised they didn’t raze the whole thing and start over. The entire first floor had been gutted with all the windows either boarded up or covered in plastic. So it was impossible to see in. The day before, Kent was able to see a little because he’s tall enough to peek through the glass slat at the top of the door.

The front porch, now without the screens and shabby furniture, seemed smaller. We’d often gathered there as a family and knew when there’d been a touchdown due to cheers wafting through the air from Camp Randall. Now a screened-in porch or sun room was being added which took up most of the back yard. Mom’s flower and vegetable garden had been covered over by progress.

The entire second floor had been taken off and then replaced with a larger version. The roof was now covered with the same blue plastic sheets I’ve seen shrouding cars following those massive freeway pileups. An upstairs master suite was being planned according to the building permit taped to the front window. It also listed a family room in the basement. Big plans. I scattered the remainder of Mom’s ashes where her old garden had been.

“There you go, Mom,” I said. “Now you can keep an eye on things.” Maybe she’ll put a hex on it, I thought. Nosey next door neighbor filled us in. And in. And in. I got into the car to give Karla a reason to excuse herself.

He followed her from the yard, then the curb, into the street. When he noticed her new car, he asked if that’s what she’d spent her inheritance on. After Karla’s non-committal response, we pulled way.

“Jerk,” I said quietly.

Afterward, we went to the Laurel Tavern just like Mom and Dad used to do. But we drove instead of walking and reminisced how they’d often stroll down there on Friday night for a fish fry, bragging that the walk proved they were staying in shape.

As we waited for our lunch, we visualized Mom and Dad sitting in a booth across the room, Dad with his beer and Mom with her cup of coffee. We tipped our glasses to them. In my imagination, Dad, the outgoing one, acknowledged us with a tilt of his glass and I could see Mom’s coy grin.

It’s strange to come to town and no longer have a place to go. I guess I truly am an orphan now. Maybe seeing the house gave me the closure so many people insist I must have. I’d always come early and stayed late each year when I attended this same week-long conference. It was a chance to catch up and get some one-on-one time, free of distractions from several siblings and multiple grandchildren.

Mom and Dad are now gone and the house is on its way to a fabulous, new life. I’ve always wondered if once parents are gone will siblings continue to see each other. Will we resolve the misunderstandings that every family endures? Will we get together? My bet is that some will and some won’t. Time will tell.

 

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